Iraq's April 20 provincial elections were like two elections in one country. They included all provinces outside the Kurdistan region except Kirkuk, due to a long-standing dispute over election law, and the predominately Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninawa, where the cabinet postponed elections under the pretext of security following a series of candidate assassinations. Elections are now set for July 4 in those two provinces.
The "Shiite election" covered the southern nine provinces plus Baghdad and parts of Diyala and Salah al-Din. In this election Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition (SLC) won a reduced plurality, large enough to keep alive any hopes Maliki might have of a third term following next year's parliamentary elections, but too weak to provide him a clear mandate. Secular Shiite parties faired poorly, and most of the vote shifted to Islamists, likely in reaction against the excesses of recent Sunni protests.
Anniversaries of invasions, occupations, and cease-fires are reminders that wars never end. The 10th anniversary of the U.S. led-invasion of Iraq prompted discussions about the damage that long-term occupation and violent conflict cause. Yet with few exceptions, these debates lack a willingness to engage with the psychological afterlife of wars for Iraqi civilians or recognition of international responsibility toward the psychological burden that awaits Iraqi society. When the subject of mental health is part of the debate, it is mostly from the military perspective: the mental wellbeing of veterans and soldiers has been a focus of media, academic, and governmental attention, whether noting increases in violent behavior among soldiers or rising rates of suicide (with 349 active member suicides in 2012, a 16 percent increase since 2011), depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But, as with estimates of more easily quantifiable physical casualties, journalists, researchers, and policymakers do not seem to have a reliable estimate of civilians' and displaced persons' psychological state.
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"Freedom of The Press" is often referred to as the fourth pillar of any modern democracy. Democratizing the media has been one of the achievements of the United States in many state-building experiments around the world -- but this was not the case in Iraq. After the U.S. intervention in 2003, Iraqi media was transformed from being a heavily controlled state propaganda tool, to a plethora of political, ethnic, tribal, and sectarian mouthpieces.
When Saddam Hussein assumed power on July 17, 1979, the Iraqi press was mostly government-owned. The former Iraqi dictator used the media to promote his ideas and to control the country in a style reminiscent of the Nazi regime in Germany. His propaganda machine was active until the end. Remarkably his official newspapers were still being distributed on April 9, 2003 -- the day his brutal regime was toppled.
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In many cases, the deluge of Iraq-10-years-on commentary seems to be preoccupied with apportioning blame and delving into questions that cannot but deteriorate into adolescent moralizing or ideological one-upmanship such as "was it worth it?" Or "was it right to invade?" The subject of "sectarianism" (here identified with the Sunni-Shiite divide), a morally charged and confused one at the best of times, has featured prominently in these polemics. This is particularly unfortunate given that a subject as complex and as multi-layered as sectarian identity cannot be reduced to the confines of an ill-conceived U.S. military adventure in 2003.
Since the invasion, many people in Iraq and beyond, repulsed by the ugly manifestations of sectarian entrenchment and ultimately sectarian violence have tried to find someone to blame. Such efforts have often been linked to views regarding the war: blame "sectarianism" on the Americans and their partners if you were against the war and blame it on any and everyone else, not least Arab Iraqis, if you were for it. However, whilst it is undoubtedly a momentous turning point in the story of sectarian relations, 2003 is by no means the first chapter. Suggesting that 2003 marks the definitive line between a sectarian and a non-sectarian Iraq is as misleading a view as one insisting on viewing sectarian entrenchment as the status quo ad infinitum of Iraqi society.
MAHMOUD AL-SAMARRAI/AFP/Getty Images
Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.
However, the slow transition to democracy and the many setbacks in the process are still frustrating to many Iraqis. This is mainly because Iraqis have no consensus on the shape of their future regime. They are divided on the questions of federalism and the scope of the central government's powers; a majority government versus a power-sharing arrangement; the identity of Iraq as a neutral state with policies driven by its national interests or as a part of some larger regional context (Arab, Islamic, etc.); among many other disputes.
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While observers of the Iraq War anniversary argue over the scale of the mistake -- a colossal folly rooted in imperial ambition and hubris, or simply an error based on faulty intelligence and misplaced fear -- the devil is in the details. These numbers, assembled by some of the 29 contributors to the Costs of War Project based at Brown University, help put the past 10 years in perspective.
0: Al Qaeda had no presence in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. But a new organization, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, has since formed and has attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces, and wages regular attacks on Iraqi civilians. Additionally, by 2013, AQI had spread offshoots and technical know-how to Syria, Jordan, and Libya. If Iraq became a "front" in the war on terrorism, as Jessica Stern, former member of the National Security Council and current fellow at the Hoover Institution, and her co-author Megan McBride, say "it is a front that the United States created."
2 plus 2: Conflicts exacerbated by the Iraq War. Iran and North Korea were apparently not intimidated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, nor deterred from pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Conversely, the war in Afghanistan was arguably prolonged by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and has escalated into Pakistan, with a corresponding increase in military spending and loss of life.
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Looking at the past 10 years of Iraq's history through the lens of displacement reveals a complex -- and sobering -- reality. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, humanitarian agencies prepared for a massive outpouring of Iraqi refugees. But this didn't happen. Instead a much more dynamic and complex form of displacement occurred. First, some 500,000 Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had been displaced by the Saddam Hussein regime returned to their places of origin. Then, in the 2003 to 2006 period, more than a million Iraqis were displaced as sectarian militias battled for control of specific neighborhoods. In February 2006, the bombing of the Al-Askaria Mosque and its violent aftermath ratcheted the numbers of IDPs up to a staggering 2.7 million. In a period of about a year, five percent of Iraq's total population fled their homes and settled elsewhere in Iraq while an additional 2 million or so fled the country entirely. It is important to underscore that this displacement was not just a by-product of the conflict, but rather the result of deliberate policies of sectarian cleansing by armed militias.
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Only a few years back, the idea of an independent Kurdistan bordering Turkey would have had Ankara up in arms. Not anymore. Past tensions have been supplanted by a new energy partnership and Turkey seems far less worried about the prospect of an independent Kurdistan. In May 2012, Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cut a deal to build one gas and two oil pipelines directly from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to Turkey without the approval of Baghdad, taking the rapprochement started between the two in 2009 one step further. If realized, the Kurdish pipelines will for the first time provide the Kurds direct access to world markets, bypassing the Baghdad controlled Kirkuk-Ceyhan (Turkey) pipeline bringing the KRG one step closer to the long-held dream of Kurdish independence.
Some pundits have argued that for this very reason Turkish approval of a Kurdish pipeline is a long shot. But the construction seems to be underway. According to Turkish press, the KRG has already begun construction on the oil and gas pipelines which are due to be operational by early 2014.
When protesters recently erupted into the streets in western Iraq, many quickly hailed them as the beginning of either a Sunni or an Iraqi Spring -- a telling difference in the perceived significance of sectarian identity. The protests were triggered by the arrest of Minister of Finance Rafi'i al Issawi's security detail on terrorism charges but are in fact reflective of much broader and long-standing grievances some of which are Iraq-wide others more specific to Sunni Arabs. After a decade of misery, rare is the Iraqi -- of whatever background -- who is satisfied with the current government; yet despite that, the protests are struggling to escape the confines of Sunni-majority areas.
When the near-obligatory nationalist reference to the rebellion of 1920 came up in a poem at a recent demonstration in Salah al Din I found myself wondering what the odds are on today's movement mirroring the joint Sunni-Shiite demonstrations of May 1920 that so alarmed the British and that Iraqi nationalists never tire of recounting. I was not alone in drawing the parallel: indeed, the poet who referred to 1920 was doing so as part of his plea toward the southern governorates to join their compatriots in protest. Another speaker explicitly called upon the Shiite marji'iya to, "come out of their silence," and support the protesters. In short Shiite symbolism, in a nationalist and religious sense, was deployed firstly to try to dispel accusations that the protests were sectarian and secondly to appeal to Shiite Iraqis to join the demonstrations. The reasons Shiites by and large have not responded to these calls, nor are likely to, are to be found in the paradoxes surrounding Iraqi nationalism, Iraqi sectarian identity, and ultimately views toward the current political order.
KHALIL AL-MURSHIDI/AFP/Getty Images
When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent. Still, it seems strange that Republicans want to remind voters that President Barack Obama extricated the United States from a difficult and unpopular war in Iraq. But that is just what Peter Feaver did in the Foreign Policy blog Shadow Government on October 12. He said that the president had opened up a "civil-military problem" for himself, because "significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq." He went on to accuse the administration, and Vice President Joe Biden specifically, of blowing the chance to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, either through incompetence or a lack of serious commitment, that would have permitted the United States to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Those are some pretty stiff charges. (Full disclosure: Feaver and I went to graduate school together. He is a great guy, but just plain wrong here.)
We can set aside, for this discussion, the big question about whether keeping that many U.S. troops in Iraq would have been a good thing. It is pretty clear what the American people think the answer is. The interesting thing about Feaver's thumbnail account of the supposed failure of the administration on this issue is the utter absence of Iraqis from the story. When the United States fails to achieve a goal, it must be either because we really were not committed to it, or we messed up. The other guys just are not that important. It really is all about us.
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The death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials in Libya last Wednesday should serve to draw much-needed attention to an increasingly untenable contradiction in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Even while it seeks to recover from this latest attack by Islamic radicals, the United States continues to support or tolerate the mobilization of adherents of that very same ideology elsewhere in the region, most clearly in Syria and in Bahrain. There, U.S. policymakers should expect equally frightening results.
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was carried out by suspected members of Ansar al-Sharia, or Partisans of Islamic Law, a group adhering to the same Salafi (or Wahhabi) religious interpretation more commonly associated with Saudi Arabia. And while the popular anti-American protests that have continued to spread across the region cannot be painted with a single brushstroke, and doubtless have roots in local political grievances, still one feature they share is the conspicuous presence -- and organizational power -- of Sunni Islamists.
read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GettyImages
In the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law Coalition emerged as the head of government over rival Ayad Allawi and the Iraqiyya Party, which had won the election by a slim majority of two seats. Since then, Iraqis and Iraq watchers have been tracking Maliki's efforts to strengthen the authority of the central government at the expense of parliament, provincial governments, and other independent checks and balances of post-Saddam governance. Most see Maliki's actions as intended to consolidate his personal power while containing his weaker and fractious opposition, whether it is secular or sectarian. This being post-Saddam Iraq, Maliki's moves carry an uncanny resemblance to the manner in which Saddam Hussein gained power.
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In 2008 -- 18 years after New York City threw him a ticker tape parade for helping to end apartheid -- it took an act of Congress to ensure that Nelson Mandela did not need a special waiver to enter the United States, finally removing his terrorist designation. In November 2011, Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah was removed from the "Individuals and Entities Designated by the State Department Under E.O. 13224" terrorist list. He had been dead for three and a half years. The "German Taliban," Eric Breininger, was dead for more than a week when he was added to the list. Although these may seem like bureaucratic oversights, they are indicative of wider problems in terrorist listing systems. While attempting to punish terrorist groups and restrict their activities, these systems have reduced the space for diplomacy, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). These disparate examples also highlight the continuing lack of agreement on who is a "terrorist."
The "Arab Spring" is now over one year old. In much of the popular analysis over the past year the term "Arab Spring" has become the defining characteristic of the "new" Middle East emerging from decades of authoritarian and repressive rule. However, one should be cautious about inflating the importance of the democratic uprisings in several Arab countries in shaping the future contours of the Middle East. This caution applies especially to exaggerating both the prospects of democracy -- particularly the unhindered linear transition to representative rule -- in the Arab world and the role of major Arab powers in determining political outcomes in the Middle East in the short and medium-term future.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders are pressing Washington to codify a "special relationship" with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The idea has gained support among certain members of the U.S. Congress, think-tanks, and others concerned about diminishing U.S. influence in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's concentration of power, and the destabilizing Iranian role in Iraq. A special United States-KRG relationship, they argue, could hedge against these threats and better assure U.S. interests in the region. Others assert that the United States has a responsibility to protect Iraqi Kurds, who have proven to be a valuable and dependable ally.
But, in fact, the United States has little to gain by creating a privileged relationship with the KRG. Not only would it send the wrong message to Iraqi Arab populations and aggravate communal relations, but it would create another cushion for the KRG leadership and dissuade political accommodation with Baghdad. The key issue for the United States is not about reciprocating Kurdish goodwill but clarifying the conditions in which a United States-KRG partnership can be sustained based on American principles and larger commitments in the region.
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Welcome to the Middle East Channel Editors Vlog, or possibly
MECTV, or the MEC-VLOG or -- if I get my way -- Aardvark TV! We're working
on it. Whatever the name, I'm thrilled to announce the pilot episode of what we
hope will be a weekly video blog hosted by me on the Middle East Channel. Hey,
it worked for Justin Bieber, right?
We recorded the pilot episode this week. It touches on Syria (jump to 1:01), Yemen (4:15), and the war debate (7:08); talks about some of my favorite articles on the Channel last week (9:45), including Aili Tripp's overview of the debate on electoral quotas for women and Michael Hanna's fascinating counterfactual on whether the Arab spring would have toppled Saddam; and profiles my book of the week (10:40). As we sort out the tech issues, we'll insert chapter breaks so you can link directly to segments. We had some fun with this one, and I hope you all do too!
Not all the episodes are going to be quite so, um....well you can provide your own descriptor once you've watched it. Each episode will be different, and most will bring in guests to join the conversation. Most weeks I plan to respond to selected questions which readers pose on Twitter, in the comment section, or over email. I'll talk about MEC articles, and when possible get the authors on camera -- or at least on Skype -- to answer questions about them. We'll feature conversations with scholars, authors, policy makers, and folks from the Middle East who come through Washington. We'll feature a book every week, some to recommend and others not so much. We'll have fun.
A big part of the reason for doing this is the opportunity to interact with readers, so do tweet questions or suggestions for the show at me (@abuaardvark) or drop me a line. We're hoping that this will be fun as well as informative. Thanks for watching, and be kind as we work out the bugs!
four armed Americans in civilian
clothes in Baghdad who claimed they were there to protect Shiites heading
toward Karbala. The two men and two women were reportedly carrying automatic
weapons and driving a silver BMW with unregistered diplomatic plates. The
Iraqis said that they found this all suspicious, since there had been no prior
coordination and the law forbids such American activities without notifying the
responsible authorities. The U.S. Embassy reportedly stepped in within 15
minutes of the arrest, and the four were released without charge. It isn't
obvious exactly what was going on, but we can all probably guess.
Baghdad governor Salah Abd al-Razzaq told reporters that even if the group were U.S. intelligence operatives, their activities had nothing to do with Iraqi security and were a clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty. He demanded an explanation from the U.S. Embassy and a promise that it not be repeated. A diplomatic crisis seems to have been averted, but the curious episode should be a cautionary tale. Whatever really happened, this could have easily escalated into a major diplomatic showdown and a legal nightmare for the Embassy.
Expect a lot of more of these kinds of incidents in the coming days. While there hasn't been much coverage of the incident in English, it's being heavily covered in the Arab and Iraqi media. Arresting and exposing American operatives in Iraq is going to be politically popular and the local media will eat it up. A lot of ambitious political forces might find it useful to be seen on TV arresting an armed American. Armed Americans traveling around Iraq, whether security contractors or intelligence operatives, are going to be an endless source of potential crisis. And people wonder why the Pentagon staunchly opposed maintaining any U.S. military presence in Iraq without a SOFA which guaranteed immunity from prosecution for American soldiers?
The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it. Critics of the withdrawal have blasted Obama for putting politics over policy, risking the alleged gains of the "surge" in order to meet a campaign promise. Many of those who played a role in the desperate attempt to reverse Iraq's 2006 descent into civil war have entirely legitimate and justifiable fears for Iraq's future. But in fact, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics -- and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.
In many ways, it would have been safer politically for Obama to keep the residual force in Iraq which hawks demanded to insulate himself against charges of having "lost Iraq". But it would have been wrong on policy. It's not just that the U.S. was obligated by the SOFA to withdraw its forces, once it proved unable to negotiate the terms of an extended troop presence with the immunity provisions which the Pentagon demanded. It's that the remaining U.S. troops could do little for Iraqi security, had little positive effect on Iraqi politics, and would have soon become an active liability. This is the lesson of the last two years, when U.S. troops were reduced in number and largely withdrew to the bases under the terms of the SOFA. The American troop presence didn't prevent bombings and murders, didn't force political reconciliation, didn't usher in real democracy, and didn't significantly increase American diplomatic influence in the region. But nor did Iraq fall apart. Obama's gamble is that the same sequence will play out in 2012 and that he will have successfully left behind an Iraq which isn't perfect but which has avoided yet another catastrophe.
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The European Union's recent agreement in principle to gradually ban Iranian crude oil imports has brought to a head a long-running dispute between Europe's economic and foreign ministries. Economic ministries feared politicizing oil because any disruption could hurt fragile economies and send prices soaring. Foreign ministries, for their part, were eager to turn the screws on Tehran with an oil embargo that would raise the costs of the country's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. This gap is narrowing fast -- but not only because of the urgency of increased diplomatic pressure.
EU ministers will discuss the embargo on January 23 after two weeks of saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf. Iran's leaders have directly linked restrictions on crude exports to the regime's willingness to shut the Strait of Hormuz. Last month, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, Iran's first vice president, warned that "If they impose sanctions on Iran's oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz." His comments came days before President Barack Obama approved new U.S. sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, which manages the country's oil transactions.
The stakes are high for Tehran. The regime depends on oil revenue for 50 percent of its budget. Last year that sum amounted to $73 billion. Iran exports 450,000 barrels per day (b/d) to Europe, which amounts to 20 percent of the country's total crude exports. Some observers worry that an EU embargo could backfire and send oil prices sky-high. But these fears may be exaggerated.
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In the midst of all the changes the Arab Spring has brought in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, among others, the intelligent lay, media, and policy worlds have remained largely deaf to the Kurdish question. This is an unfortunate situation because much has occurred concerning Kurdish nationalism, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. However, the Kurdish version of the Arab Spring did not just begin in 2011, but has been going on for decades: In Turkey (at least since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) formally began its insurgency in August 1984), as well as in Iraq since the days of Mulla Mustafa Barzani beginning in the early 1960s, but especially since the end of the two U.S. wars against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and even more in 2003. These two wars led to the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, the most successful attempt at Kurdish statehood in modern times.
In the days since the Justice Department unveiled its charges of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, conservative pundits have dusted off their attack Iraq language from 2003 and begun to apply it to Iran. It didn't take long for many to advocate a military response to Iran, in some cases not just against the revolutionary guard members believed responsible for the plan but also against Iran's nuclear program. The martial rhetoric from inveterate hawks was predictable. But even President Obama suggested that the United States would not take any "options off the table," a phrase that is understood to leave open military options.
They should not be. Even assuming the worst -- Iranian Government involvement at the most senior levels -- a military response is just what it was before the plot became known: a dangerous and unpredictable option that should be avoided.
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With the deadline for the withdrawal all U.S. troops from Iraq less than 100 days away, nobody seems to know whether troops will be allowed to stay, how many, and under what conditions. Even the basic parameters of a possible Iraqi request for a follow-on U.S. military training presence remain largely unknown and caught in the labyrinth of local politics. This uncertainty is snarling planning efforts and has certainly irked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who famously exhorted Iraq's political leaders to "dammit, make a decision" during his first trip to Baghdad this summer.
Why exactly is a troop decision taking so long? It is certainly a highly sensitive matter, but the deadline was set in 2008 and has hardly sneaked up on anyone. The answer relates to the incredibly complex nature of the trade-offs involved. Iraqis must weigh their known security vulnerabilities against the deep unpopularity of a continued foreign troop presence in their country. At the same time, and through the same decision, they are effectively calibrating the balance of their relationship between the United States and Iran. Overlaid on this is the funhouse mirror of Iraqi domestic politics, where in some circumstances a lose-lose is preferred to a win-win.
United States and Iraqi officials have yet to yet to set out a compelling and shared vision for a post-2011 mission for U.S. troops that responds to these trade-offs (as opposed to weighing the raw number of troops likely to be politically palatable in both countries). Now the clock is ticking, and little time remains to help the Iraqis undertake a genuine examination of the pros and cons of various options on this highly consequential decision for their country.
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Turkey's air strikes in recent weeks in search of Partiye Karkaren Kurdistane (PKK) insurgents along the Iraqi Kurdish border have fueled a growing crisis. They have caused civilian deaths and displacements, raising criticisms by human rights organizations, local populations, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and even the Baghdad Parliament. This predicament has not only undermined possibilities for negotiating Turkey's Kurdish problem, but has also heightened tensions among Kurdish groups in Iraq and the region.
Still, complaints against Turkish incursions will continue to be checked by concomitant demands to control the PKK, assure regional security, and guarantee shared economic interests. The military interventions may therefore have less effect than expected on the alliance between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds, but may further fragment cross-border Kurdish groups and encourage regional unrest.
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The United States' military participation in the 22 combined checkpoints across the disputed territories in northern Iraq formally ended on August 1. This was an important event because peacekeeping and conflict prevention in Kirkuk and other territories disputed between Baghdad and Erbil have frequently been cited as among the key stabilizing roles that the U.S. military plays in Iraq. And the tripartite Combined Security Mechanism (CSM) of the U.S. military, Iraqi Army, and Kurdish peshmerga did increase coordination between Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces while serving as a credible crisis management mechanism. It now faces a leap into the unknown without the U.S. glue that has held it together so far.
Will the phasing out of the U.S. role mean, as one leaked U.S. intelligence report suggested, that without strong and fair third party influence tensions along the Arab-Kurdish line may quickly turn to violence? Or is too much being made of the transition in what was always intended to be a temporary mechanism?
The answer is a little bit of both. It is unlikely that the U.S. troop withdrawal will lead directly to a conventional military blowout between the Iraqi Army and peshmerga. In all probability, conditions in most disputed areas will be steady on a day-to-day basis. But its withdrawal will make the situation less stable. The CSM has been a failsafe to prevent episodic crises in individual hotspots from spiraling out of control. Its removal makes the next miscalculation or local standoff more difficult to defuse and potentially graver in its consequences. There almost certainly will be such testing events as the parties jockey to create facts on the ground.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
If you were watching Iraq's government-sponsored satellite channel Al-Iraqiyah Sports yesterday between 9 p.m. and 12 a.m. Baghdad time you would not have known that the whole country had just endured its bloodiest day in over a year. Earlier in the day, spectacular attacks killed and injured over 300 people. But as soon as Ramadan's daily fast was broken, over 50,000 spectators packed into Baghdad's most prominent stadium, Al-Sha'ab, to watch the Baghdad-based Al-Zawraa club (dubbed the White Seagulls because of their white jerseys) take on the Arbil-based Arbil Club (known as the yellow Citadel given the colors of their jerseys and the presence of the historical citadel in downtown Arbil) in the championship game of a long soccer season.
The most obvious conclusion one might come to at the end of the evening is that Iraqis are resilient and attacks are not going to deter them from carrying on with their daily lives. That is apparent in the actions of the soccer federation that did not cancel the game despite the attraction it could provide to insurgents as a target and the fans who were, ironically, bothered by the heavy security presence at the stadium. However, in a more subtle manner, it was evident how the game mirrored the country's political and social situation -- divided, hotly contested, and with deeply unclear significance.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Last Tuesday, two Katusha rockets directly struck the Kuwaiti Embassy in Iraq, while another hit a nearby building. No one was hurt and all Kuwaiti employees left Iraq and returned to Kuwait for Ramadan. A Kuwait parliamentarian angrily called for the expulsion of the Iraqi ambassador from Kuwait. Even in the turbulence of today's Middle East, such an incident raises eyebrows.
The attack and the political furor that followed fit an alarming pattern of escalating Iraqi-Kuwaiti tensions. In April 2010, as a part of a $1.2 billion demand for reparations, lawyers acting on behalf of Kuwait Airways sought the impounding of an Iraqi Airways plane as it landed in London for the first time in two decades -- a moment of considerable national pride. In January, a Kuwaiti Coast Guard officer was killed in an altercation with an Iraqi fishing boat, which was sunk during the incident. And late last year Qais Al-Azzawi, the Iraqi ambassador to the Arab League, suggested that Iraq did not accept the U.N. demarcated border -- a comment that sounded eerily similar to one of Saddam Hussein's flimsy pretexts for the 1990 invasion.
These tensions have taken a dramatic turn for the worse over Kuwaiti plans to build a new port on a sensitive location at the mouth of the long-contested Shaat Al-Arab. The uproar has been exacerbated by democratic politics in Iraq and Kuwait, as issues of national pride and historical memory have proven irresistible to ambitious politicians. Yet these parliamentarians are putting at risk striking new opportunities for cooperation between the former antagonists, which could lead to conflict that nobody really wants.
The trajectory of peaceful demonstrations in Libya and Syria has been impacted by regime violence. The result: large populations of internally displaced peoples (IDP's) have been created inside of those countries as well as great numbers of refugees fleeing to bordering countries. Furthermore, the revolutions of the Arab Spring have serious ramifications for already existing refugee populations, notably the more than one million Iraqi refugees that have settled in Syria since 2006. The possibility of increased large-scale refugee movement from Libya and Syria will not only spur a devastating humanitarian crisis, but could also further destabilize the region.
Considering that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is already working with insufficient funds, Western policymakers should pay attention to these imminent crises. One need only look at the social and economic repercussions of the still unresolved predicament of Iraqi refugees to see the urgency of keeping the current situations from escalating into another protracted refugee crisis. The consequences of a prolonged refugee situation could be dire, especially as many of the countries to which the people are fleeing allow few -- if any -- rights, benefits, or protection for refugees.
As the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq draws nearer, concerns about conflict along the trigger line in the oil-rich, ethnically-mixed province of Kirkuk have increased. Many worry that the absence of American-led joint patrols will create a security vacuum that encourages communal violence and terrorism. Others link the withdrawal to what they call ‘democratic negligence,' arguing for greater international efforts to resolve ethnic tensions in Kirkuk before the drawdown. These concerns are not unfounded; however, aside from a limited, Baghdad-approved U.S. military presence, the Kirkuk issue should be left for Iraqis to resolve. New realities in post-Saddam Iraq have increased the costs for everyone of a protracted Kirkuk conflict while creating opportunities for deal-making between Baghdad and Arbil.
Over the past few weeks, top U.S. officials have started to publicly press the Iraqi government to decide whether it will allow thousands of American troops to stay in the country after the expiration of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on December 31st. On recent trips to Iraq, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen appeared to signal that the U.S. government desires a continued American military presence past the end of the year. "Time is short for any negotiations to occur," Admiral Mullen warned last week.
In one sense there is less here than meets the eye. Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen are probably less concerned with whether Iraq wants the troops or not than with simply getting an answer for practical purposes. Complying with the SOFA's requirement that all American troops leave is a massive logistical undertaking, and it would be much better to know whether a residual force will be needed before the final stages of withdrawal begin in earnest this summer. Any extension of the U.S. military presence if troops were to remain past the 2011 withdrawal deadline requires a request by the Iraqi government. U.S. officials hoped that the Iraqi government would share their own assessment of the lack of readiness of the country's security forces and ask for a continued presence sufficiently far in advance of the deadline to enable an orderly transition. Instead, the Iraqi government has been bogged down in its own internal troubles and has made no official moves toward renegotiating.
But the problem is that, while cajoling Iraq into giving an answer, American leaders send a counterproductive, if unintended, signal that the United States wants a longer-term military presence. To be sure, there is some basis for such a position: a residual American force could continue to train Iraqi forces, provide intelligence and other important support capabilities, and, in northern Iraq, help maintain the peace between the forces of Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish government. Iraq is also incapable of defending its borders and airspace from external threats. Yet however well-intentioned or seemingly obvious these arguments seem in Washington, they are unlikely to sway the Iraqi government because they ignore the domestic imperatives faced by Iraq's political leaders.
The no-fly zone in Libya began with an urgent need to protect civilians, but in common with many past international humanitarian interventions, is inevitably expanding to clear space for a new political order. Barack Obama, Nikolas Sarkozy and David Cameron have now made the case in "Libya's Pathway to Peace" that "it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power." So far though, the U.S. and its allies seem less prepared for the political, social and economic reconstruction dynamics likely to be unleashed by the eventual ouster of Qaddafi than they were for the military mechanics of establishing a no-fly zone. The Libya intervention has little in common with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite the oft-heard criticisms. But there are some generic lessons on post-authoritarian transitions in conflict devastated societies that were acquired at great cost in Iraq. These should now be heeded if the administration and its international partners' initial humanitarian impulse is to translate into a lasting contribution to Libya's stability.
President Obama is correct that the difficulties of intervening militarily everywhere do not mean that we should not intervene anywhere. But past experience should be a bright, blinking reminder that military interventions to avert immediate humanitarian crises are not one-off, pinprick operations. In Libya, a possible humanitarian disaster in Benghazi was averted through the international intervention last month, but only weeks later Misurata faces an equally grave moment of reckoning. This underscores the reality that the immediate threats to the civilian population in rebel-held cities are only symptoms of deeper underlying political failings, which a no-fly zone is unable to address by itself.
Iraq is the touchstone for failing to think about the day after military operations. However one may feel about the decision to invade, it was not preordained that the post-war period had to be as bloody and chaotic as it was, nor the consequences for regional stability as severe. Despite the incredible daily press of current events in the Middle East, it would be tragic to repeat this history in Libya. We and the Iraqis have painful experience with the path dependency that can result from initial mistakes. In Libya, this argues for giving ourselves the space to understand the local context better before making future reconstruction allocation decisions, prioritizing the development of incipient governing and civil capacity, and understanding that rushed transition benchmarks are unlikely to be inclusive and can do more harm than good.
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